Fat face

In typography, a fat face letterform is a serif typeface or piece of lettering in the Didone or modern style with an extremely bold design.[2] Fat face typefaces appeared in London around 1805-10 and became widely popular; John Lewis describes the fat face as "the first real display typeface."[3][4][5][6][a]

Elephant is a digital fat face typeface by Matthew Carter based on the typefaces of Vincent Figgins.[1]

While decorated typefaces and lettering styles existed in the past, for instance inline and shadowed forms, the fat faces' extreme design and their issue in very large poster sizes had an immediate impact on display typography in the early nineteenth century. Historian James Mosley describes a fat face as "designed like a naval broadside to sock its commercial message...by sheer aggressive weight of heavy metal."[1]

The same style of letters was also widely used executed as custom lettering rather than as a typeface in the nineteenth century, in architecture, on tombstones and on signage.[8] Versions were executed as roman or upright, italics and with designs inside the main bold strokes of the letter, such as a white line, patterns or decorations such as flowers or harvest scenes. They are different in style to the slab serif typefaces which appeared shortly afterwards, in which the serifs themselves are also made bold in weight.[1]


London poster, c. 1840s.

Thomas Curson Hansard (1825) describes the then new "fat face, or fat letter" as "a broad-stemmed letter".[9] Thomas Ford (1854) writes that "any type with a very bold face is so called. Such type is much used in jobbing offices."[2] Mosley explains that (unlike slab serif typefaces) "while the thick lines were very thick, the thin ones remained the same - or in proportion, very thin indeed."[1]

Historical backgroundEdit

Early theatre poster, Bristol 1808: all text is in fonts similar to body text faces
1818 poster, Wales; complete change in style. Fat face, or at least bold, letterforms used throughout; the main heading is in an inline italic design.

Great changes took place in the style of printed letters available from type foundries in the hundred years after 1750. At the beginning of this period, fonts in Latin-alphabet printing were predominantly intended for book printing. The modern concept of text faces having companion bold fonts did not exist, although some titling capitals were quite bold; if a bolder effect was intended blackletter might be used.[10]

From the arrival of roman type around 1475 to the late eighteenth century, relatively little development in letter design took place, as most fonts of the period were intended for body text, and they stayed relatively similar in design, generally ignoring local styles of lettering or newer "pointed-pen" styles of calligraphy.[11][b]

Starting in the eighteenth century, typefounders developed what are now called transitional and then Didone types.[c] These typefaces had daringly slender horizontals and serif details, catching up to the steely calligraphy and copperplate engraving styles of the period, that could show off the increasingly high quality of paper and printing technology of the period.[12][13][14] In addition, these typefaces had a strictly vertical stress: without exception, the vertical lines were thicker than the horizontals, creating a much more geometric and modular design.[d][15][16][17]

A major development of the early nineteenth century was the arrival of the printed poster and increasing use of printing for publicity and advertising material. This presumably caused a desire to make eye-catching new types of letters available for printing.[18][19][20][21] Typefaces clearly intended for poster use began to appear in London in the second half of the eighteenth century, introduced by the typefounders William Caslon II and Thomas Cottrell, although casting large metal type in sand for book titles was used for centuries before that.[22][23][24] Caslon's were apparently marketed for use by stagecoach services, with lists of towns on the specimen sheets. Although influenced by a textbook on architectural lettering, they still remained similar to magnified body text forms, rather than a new departure, although they did establish one precedent later followed by both fat face typefaces and modern face types generally, that numerals were at a fixed height rather than the old text figures of variable height.[23]

First appearancesEdit

According to Mosley,"the growth [of fat face letters] from existing models can be continuously traced. There is a clear parallel to it in contemporary architectural lettering...in printing types its fatness was steadily increased".[25]

Two contemporary sources concurred that fat face letters were popularised by the typefounder Robert Thorne.[26] He had been an apprentice to Thomas Cottrell,[27] who pioneered large-size poster types, before setting up his own company, often called the Fann Street Foundry, in North London.[27] According to Hansard (1825), "the extremely bold and fat letter, now prevalent in job-printing, owes its introduction principally to Mr. Thorne, a spirited and successful letter-founder" and according to William Savage (1822) he "has been principally instrumental in the revolution that has taken place in Posting Bills by the introduction of fat types."[27][28] Unfortunately few typeface specimen books from the period survive, making it difficult to confirm this.[29] As to the clients for these types, Mosley writes that "it is tempting to see" the lottery agent Thomas Bish as a force behind them: the two Thomas Bishes, a father and son who were famous lottery promoters, were well-known for brash, startling advertising; Mosley highlights as significant a fat face in a later specimen book simply showcased with the single specimen word "Bish", and notes that Bish's posters began with "heavy roman lettering in wood, for which fat-face types were substituted as they became available".[25][e]

Increasing boldnessEdit

An early example, not particularly bold, of c. 1816.[33] This style of 'W' was common in roundhand calligraphy.[34][35]

Writers on the history of printing have discussed the increasing boldness of fat face-style types in the early nineteenth century as a transition from bold designs to truly fat typefaces, although it is not clear that nineteenth-century printers made this distinction. According to Alfred F. Johnson, bold typefaces begin to appear in the 1800s with the more extreme fat face types appearing on advertisements for the state lottery from around 1810.[36] The Fry Foundry's French Canon No. 2 of around 1806 has been described as a "semi-fat face";[37] in the opinion of Paul Barnes the letterforms in Thorne's specimen of 1803 are not yet true fat faces, only bold.[29] Nicolete Gray in her book Nineteenth Century Ornamented Typefaces describes the Fry Foundry's as an early paradigm but not quite the "fully developed fat face": "a superb, wide, generous letter, magnificently roman, but with a good deal less of order and more of pomp than Trajan's classic. It is the same style as the best English architectural lettering...it is not a modern face...this noble letter is merely transitional; by 1815 it has entirely disappeared from the specimen books. It is replaced by the fully developed fat face."[38]

Widespread useEdit

Carmarthen, 1838: variation of letterform from ultra-bold down to merely bolder than average in the extended text.
An extremely bold fat face design from A.W. Kinsley & Co., Albany, 1829. The counters have been reduced to abrupt, tiny slits.

Fat faces rapidly became popular, and were also used in the USA, where they were used on gravestones.[8][39] In the United States Barnhurst and Nerone comment that fat face newspaper nameplates were in fashion in the 1810s; later they were often replaced by blackletter.[40]

Mosley has particularly praised those of Vincent Figgins' foundry (digitised by Matthew Carter as Elephant, above): "exaggeration puts a huge strain on the designer if the result is to retain any coherence at all. Whoever cut the fat-faces of Vincent Figgins...handled the problems with what can only be described as elegance."[1] Various varieties were made by different foundries, including condensed, wide and contra-italic versions.[29] Other display typefaces proliferated in this period; reverse-contrast typefaces, introduced by 1821, may be seen as an inversion of the style.[41]

Ornamented designsEdit

Two decorated types from the 1838 specimen book of the Austin Letter Foundry.[42]

Besides simple typefaces, variants were designed with patterns and decorations. These extended from simple inline designs to artwork such as flowers and harvest scenes. Decorated fat face typefaces were cut in wood and reproduced by dabbing or stereotype. Digital font designer Andy Clymer reports finding on engraved maps that it was more common for bold lettering to be decorated, leaving spaces not engraved out, than it was to be solid black: "whenever things would get heavier, they would often just get more ornamented…not filled in solid [but] with some kind of ornamentation or decoration."[43] This is seen in A Specimen of the Print Hands, an internal specimen of lettering styles used by the Ordnance Survey in the early nineteenth century, in which the boldest lettering is decorated.[44]

One type foundry particularly known for decorated designs was the London foundry of Louis John Pouchée.[37][45] Pouchée was a Freemason, and some of his foundry's wood patterns, many of which survive, were inspired by Masonic emblems.[46][47] Ultimately such large decorated metal types were only briefly popular, soon being replaced by lighter wood type.[45]

Late nineteenth centuryEdit

In 1863, printer H. Morgan in Madras wrote that fat-face letter "is seldom used now".[48]

The term "fat face" was not exclusively used for ultra-bold poster types. In the late nineteenth century it was used in the United States to describe bolder text faces; William E. MacKellar in 1893 showed a wide body text face described as a fat face in discussing pay scales for compositors.[49]

In 1901 printer Theodore Low De Vinne criticised the style as "an object lesson of absurdity".[50]

Twentieth century and laterEdit

Mid-century poster by Lewitt-Him, an example of the revival of fat faces in graphic design around this time. The 'f's are "non-kerning", a style that only became popular from the middle of the nineteenth century.[51]

Fat faces returned to some popularity in the twentieth century, in the UK as part of the Victoriana style promoted by John Betjeman and others in the 1930s.[52][53] Post-nineteenth century fat face fonts include:

Digital period fat faces include:

  • Elephant/Big Figgins by Matthew Carter (1992, in 1998 rereleased under the second name in an expanded family)[58][59][60][61][62][63][64][65]
  • Surveyor and Obsidian by Hoefler & Co.[43]
  • Brunel and Isambard by Barnes & Schwartz[66][29] (Although not a fat face, topping out in a bold weight, Barnes' Chiswick is inspired by vernacular letterforms preceding them, with a wide range of alternates based on lettering of the period.[67][68][69][70])


  1. ^ Although note that, unsurprisingly, other authors have had different views: for instance Fred Smeijers describes Hendrik van den Keere's large heavy types of the 1560s make him "one of the first to make roman display types that were explicitly conceived as such."[7]
  2. ^ This was not the only way in which fonts could appear different, however: differences in x-height, spacing, condensation and colour on the page can make body text fonts look different in design even if individual letters are not that different.
  3. ^ Elements of what became transitional typefaces appeared from the late seventeenth century, as lettering and particularly in the groundbreaking Romain du Roi alphabet of the French crown, but generally typefounders stayed using typefaces of conservative design into the eighteenth century.
  4. ^ Didone types were at the time called 'modern' for their sophisticated image; the name has fallen from use as they have become less common in body text from around the end of the nineteenth century.
  5. ^ There were two Thomas Bishes, father and son. Both have been extensively discussed in literature on the history of advertising; see following sources.[30][31][32]


  1. ^ a b c d e Margaret Re; Johanna Drucker; James Mosley; Matthew Carter (1 July 2003). Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter. Princeton Architectural Press. pp. 61, 84, 90. ISBN 978-1-56898-427-8.
  2. ^ a b Ford, Thomas (1854). The Compositor's Handbook. T. Ford. p. 243.
  3. ^ Lewis 1962, p. 12.
  4. ^ Kennard, Jennifer (3 January 2014). "The Story of Our Friend, the Fat Face". Fonts in Use. Retrieved 11 August 2015.
  5. ^ Phinney, Thomas. "Fat Faces". Graphic Design and Publishing Centre. Retrieved 10 August 2015.
  6. ^ Nesbitt, Alexander (1998). The History and Technique of Lettering. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. pp. 158–161. ISBN 9780486402819.
  7. ^ Smeijers, Fred (1999). "Renard: an idiosyncratic type revival1". Quaerendo. 29 (1): 52–60. doi:10.1163/157006999X00077.
  8. ^ a b Shaw, Paul. "By the Numbers no. 2—Fat Faces in New England Cemeteries". Paul Shaw Letter Design. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  9. ^ Hansard 1825, p. 926.
  10. ^ Mosley, James. "Comments on Typophile thread "Where do bold typefaces come from?"". Typophile. Archived from the original on 20 December 2016. Retrieved 16 December 2016. John Smith says in his Printer’s grammar (London, 1755). ‘Black Letter … is sometimes used … to serve for matter which the Author would particularly enforce to the reader.’
  11. ^ Lane, John A.; Lommen, Mathieu. "John Lane & Mathieu Lommen: ATypI Amsterdam Presentation". YouTube. ATypI. Retrieved 12 July 2019.
  12. ^ Meggs, Philip B. & Purvis, Alston W. (2006). "Graphic Design and the Industrial Revolution". History of Graphic Design. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. p. 122.
  13. ^ Sutton, James & Sutton, Alan (1988). An Atlas of Typeforms. Wordsworth Editions. p. 59. ISBN 1-85326-911-5.
  14. ^ Mosley 1993, p. 8.
  15. ^ Phinney, Thomas. "Transitional & Modern Type Families". Graphic Design & Publishing Center. Retrieved 30 October 2015.
  16. ^ De Jong, Cees W.; Purvis, Alston W. & Friedl, Friedrich (2005). Creative Type: A Sourcebook of Classical and Contemporary Letterforms. Thames & Hudson. p. 223.
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  18. ^ David Raizman (2003). History of Modern Design: Graphics and Products Since the Industrial Revolution. Laurence King Publishing. pp. 40–3. ISBN 978-1-85669-348-6.
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  21. ^ John Lewis (April 2007). Typography: Design and Practice. Jeremy Mills Publishing. pp. 13–17. ISBN 978-1-905217-45-8.
  22. ^ Mosley, James (1990). A Specimen of Printing Types & Various Ornaments 1796: Reproduced Together with the Sale Catalogue of the British Letter-Foundry 1797. Printing Historical Society. pp. 5–12.
  23. ^ a b Wolpe, Berthold (1964). "Caslon Architectural: On the origin and design of the large letters cut and cast by William Caslon II". Alphabet. pp. 57–72.
  24. ^ Howes, Justin (2004). "Caslon's Patagonian". Matrix. 24: 61–71.
  25. ^ a b Mosley 1993, p. 10.
  26. ^ Johnson 1970, p. 409.
  27. ^ a b c Hansard 1825, p. 360.
  28. ^ Savage 1822, p. 72.
  29. ^ a b c d Barnes, Paul. "Isambard: read the story". Commercial Type. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  30. ^ Strachan, John (2007). "'Publicity to a lottery is certainly necessary': Thomas Bish and the culture of gambling". Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period. Cambridge University Press. pp. 162–203. ISBN 978-0-521-88214-9.
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  38. ^ Gray 1977, p. 14.
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  41. ^ Shields, David (2008). "A Short History of the Italian". Ultrabold: The Journal of St Bride Library (4): 22–27.
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  43. ^ a b Clymer, Andy (3 April 2015). "Designing Obsidian with Andy Clymer". Vimeo. Cooper Union. Retrieved 22 May 2020.
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  45. ^ a b Mosley 1993.
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Cited literatureEdit